Section 5.2: Deviance and Control

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

As we delve into the intricate social fabric that binds us as a society, we may not realize that a plethora of behavioral patterns surround us. Some align with the social norms, while other activities, labeled as ‘deviance,’ stand out. Often, society seeks to control deviant behaviors.

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But what exactly is deviance? Simply put, deviance refers to the violation of established norms in society (Anderson & Taylor, 2019). It represents an act that fails to meet the collective expectations, principles, or rules of a particular group.

Deviance, though often perceived negatively, has another face that many overlook. Paradoxically, deviance serves as a catalyst for social change. An individual or a group challenging societal norms sometimes opens the way for reformations and societal evolution (Kendall, 2020).

Understanding Deviant Behavior

Let’s dive into what deviant behavior is and why it’s important in our society. Imagine you’re wearing a swimsuit to school – that’s pretty odd, right? That’s because it goes against what’s expected, or “deviant.” Now, why does this matter, and who decides what’s normal anyway?

What Makes Something Deviant?

Calling something “deviant” isn’t just someone’s random decision. It’s influenced by a bunch of things like what’s valued in your culture, the rules of your society, and who has the power to decide what’s normal (Crossman, 2021). For instance, school administrators have the power to decide that swimsuits don’t belong in classrooms. What’s considered deviant can change from one place to another. What’s odd in your school might be totally fine on the beach!

Power Plays a Role

Who’s in charge really matters when we talk about deviance. Those with power, like school administrators or the government, have a big say in what’s considered normal (Becker, 1963). They shape what we see as acceptable or weird. This is important because it shapes how everyone thinks about and reacts to different behaviors.

Deviance Changes Over Time

What’s considered deviant isn’t set in stone. It changes depending on where you are and the time period. For example, in the past, people thought differently about same-sex relationships than many do today (Herek, 2006). This shows how our understanding of deviance evolves with society.

Real-World Examples

Let’s look at some examples. In a business, wearing shorts and flip-flops might be seen as deviant because it breaks the dress code (Jackall, 1988). In a small village, skipping a traditional ceremony might be considered deviant (Scott, 1976). These examples show that what’s seen as deviant varies widely based on the situation.

Wrapping Up

Understanding deviance is like looking at a constantly changing picture of what society expects. It’s shaped by cultural values, the rules of the game, and who’s holding the power. Recognizing this helps us understand not just the rules but why they’re there and how they change.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think your school’s rules reflect who has power and what’s considered normal? How might these rules look different in another place or time?

Deviance, Crime, and Society

Welcome to the exciting world of sociology, where we explore the intriguing concepts of deviance and crime in society. Think of deviance as the unusual spice in our social life, and crime as breaking society’s serious rules.

Deviance: More Than Just Crime

Imagine deviance as a big umbrella, with crime as just one of its spokes (Haralambos & Holborn, 2013). Deviance is all about being different, in behavior, thoughts, or appearance, from what’s usually expected. It’s like wearing a costume to a regular school day – odd but not illegal. Crime, on the other hand, is like breaking the law, such as stealing. But remember, not everything weird is criminal, and not all crimes are seen as weird.

The Changing Face of Deviance

Deviance is super flexible. What’s considered odd in one place might be totally normal in another (Becker, 1963). For example, tattoos might be a no-no in some places but a sign of beauty or bravery in others (DeMello, 2000). This shows how our view of what’s strange or wrong can change based on where we are and who we’re with.

When Deviance and Crime Cross Paths

History is full of examples where what was once seen as weird or wrong becomes accepted. Take, for instance, how many societies viewed homosexuality as both deviant and criminal. Over time, as people’s opinions and laws evolved, it’s become accepted and legal in many places (Herek, 2004). This shows that our ideas of right and wrong, normal and strange, can shift dramatically.

Wrapping Up

So, as we navigate the complex interplay of deviance, crime, and society, it’s crucial to remember that these concepts are not static. They evolve with our changing society, reflecting the diverse and dynamic nature of human behavior and social norms.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Think about a behavior that’s considered normal in your community but might be seen as deviant elsewhere. Why do you think that is, and how does it shape your view of what’s “normal”?

Social Control and Sanctions

Steering Society: The Role of Social Control

Think of social control as the captain of a ship, guiding and keeping everyone on course (Hirschi, 1969). It uses a mix of formal laws and informal expectations to keep society running smoothly. Like the rules at home or in school, social control helps everyone get along by making sure we know what’s expected of us.

Sanctions: The Carrot and the Stick

Sanctions are like the carrots and sticks used to guide behavior (Parsons, 1951). Positive sanctions (the carrots) are rewards for following the rules, like getting a compliment for helping out. Negative sanctions (the sticks) are punishments for breaking the rules, like getting a time-out for fighting. These sanctions help shape our behavior, guiding us toward what’s considered acceptable.

Informal vs. Formal Sanctions: From Frowns to Fines

Not all sanctions are created equal. Informal sanctions are the everyday reactions we get from people around us, like smiles or scowls (Black, 1976). Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are the official responses from institutions like schools or the government, like getting a medal for bravery or a ticket for speeding. Both types are important, but formal sanctions often carry more weight because they come from recognized authorities.

Wrapping Up

Understanding social control and sanctions gives us a clearer picture of how society keeps itself organized and how our actions fit into the bigger picture. It’s a fascinating dance between individual behavior and societal expectations, showing how we all contribute to the harmony and order of our community.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Think about the last time you received a sanction, whether it was a smile from a friend or a detention at school. How did it influence your behavior afterward, and why do you think it had that effect?

Societal Implications of Deviance

Let’s take a closer look at how unusual behaviors, or “deviance,” impact our world. Although people often think of deviance as negative, it actually plays a big role in shaping society.

Long-term Impacts of Small Unusual Acts

Think about this: small actions that stand out can lead to big changes over time. Like a single butterfly flapping its wings might eventually cause a storm far away, little acts that seem odd or differentโ€”like recycling years agoโ€”can lead to significant changes, like making our planet healthier today (Durkheim, 1895).

How Our Views Are Colored

Our view of what’s considered odd or different isn’t always fair or unbiased. Sadly, our society’s deep-seated prejudices often paint some groups as more “deviant” than others, leading to unfair treatment and misunderstandings about what deviance really means (Pager, 2007).

Shifting Standards

What we think of as unusual or unacceptable changes over time. Just like the ocean tides come in and out, society’s rules and norms evolve. For example, it was once shocking for women to wear trousers, but now it’s completely normal (Inglehart & Baker, 2000).

๐Ÿ”ย  Reflect

How do you think your own ideas of what’s “normal” or “unusual” have been shaped by the world around you?

Case Study: Driving a Hearse

Let’s dive into an unusual case study about someone using a funeral car, or “hearse,” as their everyday ride.

Choosing an Uncommon Car

Imagine using a car meant for funerals as your everyday vehicle. This unique choice is a mild form of deviance, showing a little rebellion against what’s expected without breaking any rules (Becker, 1963).

How People React

Seeing a hearse out for a casual drive might make people feel surprised or even uncomfortable. These reactions are like a window into what society expects and accepts, revealing how strongly we all hold onto certain norms (Goffman, 1963).

Mixed Feelings

People’s feelings about this unusual car choice can vary a lot. Some might think it’s cool and brave to be so different, celebrating the driver’s unique style. Others might find it off-putting or disrespectful, connecting the hearse more to its traditional use with mourning and loss (Douglas, 1966).

In summary, this interesting case of driving a hearse, along with the broader idea of deviance, shows us the ongoing conversation between what individuals do and what society expects. Deviance isn’t just one thing; it’s an ever-changing mix of personal choices and societal norms.

๐Ÿ”ย  Reflect

How might you react if you saw a hearse being used for everyday activities, and what does that say about your own views on normalcy and difference?

The Evolution of Deviance and Social Norms

Welcome to the exciting conclusion of our journey through sociology! We’re exploring how unusual behaviors and society’s rules change over time.

History Shows Us How Views Change

Let’s look back in time to see how what’s considered strange or wrong has changed. History is filled with examples of how society’s views evolve. For instance, the brave women who fought for their right to vote were once seen as troublemakers but are now celebrated as pioneers for gender equality (Foucault, 1977).

Culture Shapes Our Ideas of What’s Odd

Our shared culture plays a big role in what we see as odd or unacceptable. As our beliefs and values change, so does our view of deviance (Braithwaite, 1989). Think about how the view of same-sex relationships has changed in many places from being seen as wrong to being accepted and celebrated.

The Connection Between Unusual Behavior, Change, and Law

There’s a complex relationship between what’s seen as odd, how society changes, and what’s considered illegal. As the world changes, the line between odd behavior and crime shifts too. It’s important to remember that not everything that’s unusual is against the law, and not all crimes are seen as truly strange (Merton, 1938; Becker, 1963). This shows how society’s changing rules can affect what’s considered a crime and vice versa.

๐Ÿ”ย  Reflect

How do you think your own ideas of what’s “normal” or “unusual” might change in the future, and what influences these shifts?


As we wrap up our exploration, let’s reflect on the intricate role of unusual behavior in our world.

Deviance: A Changing and Complex Idea

Think of deviance as a color-changing chameleon, constantly adapting to society’s shifting landscape. It’s a complex mix of individual actions, societal rules, and cultural changes (Erikson, 1966). We’ve seen how what’s considered unusual can vary widely across different times and places, continuously reshaping society.

How Society Responds and Controls

Society has various ways to handle unusual behavior, from simple disapproval to formal laws and enforcement (Hirschi, 1969). Understanding these methods is key to understanding how we all live together and maintain social order.

The Challenge of Understanding Deviance

As we conclude, let’s remember that understanding and defining unusual behavior isn’t straightforward. What’s seen as odd in one place might be normal in another (Becker, 1963). It’s a complex issue that can’t easily be pinned down or measured.

As we part ways, keep using the sociological perspective we’ve developed. Let it help you see beneath the surface of society, question what’s considered normal, and appreciate the ongoing interplay between individuality and societal expectations.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How will you use your understanding of deviance and societal norms to view the world around you differently?


Deviance is a complex and evolving concept that involves the violation of established social norms. It can serve as a catalyst for social change and challenging existing norms. Various factors, including cultural values, power dynamics, and societal structures, influence the labeling of deviance. Deviance is subjective and contextual, changing over time and across different cultures. Historical examples illustrate the shifting perceptions of deviance and its criminalization.

Social control and sanctions play a crucial role in maintaining social order and enforcing norms. They utilize both formal and informal mechanisms to reward adherence to norms and penalize violations. Informal sanctions involve social rewards or punishments administered by family, friends, and peers. Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are official responses from institutions such as schools or courts.

Understanding deviance and social control provides valuable insights into the functioning of our society. It helps us appreciate the dynamic nature of deviant behavior, the influence of power structures on labeling, and the fluidity of societal norms. By examining historical examples and the role of social control, we gain a deeper understanding of how deviance shapes our perceptions and responses within different cultural and temporal contexts.

Deviance refers to behavior that violates established social norms. While often seen negatively, deviance can also spark social change by challenging existing norms. The labeling of deviant behavior is influenced by various factors, including cultural values, societal structures, and power dynamics. What may be considered deviant in one context may be acceptable in another, highlighting the subjective nature of deviance.

Deviance is not absolute and varies based on the cultural, temporal, and spatial context. Historical examples demonstrate how societal views on deviance evolve over time. Deviance can manifest in different settings, with behaviors labeled as deviant varying depending on the norms of that particular context.

Understanding deviance helps us navigate the complex interplay of societal norms, cultural values, and power dynamics. It reveals the dynamic nature of deviant behavior and its potential for societal transformation. By examining real-life examples and acknowledging the contextual nature of deviance, we gain insights into the intricate fabric of our society.

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Key Terms

adherence, biases, cohesive environment, contextual nature, cultural values, deviance, deviant behavior, established norms, examples, fluid, labeling, long-term impacts, minor deviant acts, negative sanctions, power dynamics, prejudices, societal control, societal implications, societal norms, societal responses, social change, social order, society, subjective, understanding, violation, violations

References and Further Readingย 

  • Anderson, M. L., & Taylor, H. F. (2019). Sociology: The essentials. Cengage Learning.
  • Banner, L. W. (1986). From republicanism to the new woman: American women’s ideologies and roles, 1870-1920. In Women in culture and politics: A century of change (pp. 79-108). Indiana University Press.
  • Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Free Press.
  • Black, D. (1976). The behavior of law. Academic Press.
  • Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge University Press.
  • Crossman, A. (2021). Understanding deviance in a world of standards. Sociology Review, 32(2), 25-31.
  • DeMello, M. (2000). Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Duke University Press.
  • Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.
  • Durkheim, E. (1895). The rules of sociological method. The Free Press.
  • Erikson, K. T. (1966). Wayward Puritans: A study in the sociology of deviance. Wiley.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.
  • Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Prentice-Hall.
  • Haralambos, M., & Holborn, M. (2013). Sociology: Themes and perspectives. HarperCollins UK.
  • Herek, G. M. (2004). Beyond “homophobia”: Thinking about sexual prejudice and stigma in the twenty-first century. Sexuality Research & Social Policy Journal, 1(2), 6-24.
  • Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. University of California Press.
  • Inglehart, R., & Baker, W. E. (2000). Modernization, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values. American Sociological Review, 65(1), 19-51.
  • Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672-682.
  • Pager, D. (2003). The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology, 108(5), 937-975.
  • Pager, D. (2007). The use of field experiments for studies of employment discrimination: Contributions, critiques, and directions for the future. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 609(1), 104-133.
  • Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Free Press.
  • Sutherland, E. H. (1949). White-collar crime. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
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